Harriet Walter: We mustn’t tar Russian people with same brush as their leaders

·4-min read

Dame Harriet Walter has said Russia is doing “terrible harm,” but we must not “tar the Russian people and the Russian language with the same brush as its political leaders”.

The star of the screen and stage, 71, will join a star-studded line-up at a Poets for Ukraine fundraiser held at the JW3 in London on Sunday evening.

Dame Harriet, who has showcased her command of the Russian language in the BBC drama Killing Eve, will be reading Requiem by the Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova, who gave voice to the experience of Russian people under Joseph Stalin’s rule.

She told the PA news agency: “Poetry is like music. It affects us on a non-verbal level as well as the verbal one. Language itself is neutral.

“As an actor I try to tune in to the intent behind the words and great poetry intends us to pay attention and to think deeply and bravely. It is the opposite of propaganda.

“Russia as a political force is doing terrible harm to the world but we mustn’t tar the Russian people and the Russian language with the same brush as its political leaders.”

She will be joined by actress Juliet Stevenson, who has welcomed a family of Ukrainian refugees into her home, at the fundraiser on Mother’s Day.

Stevenson will be reading Shakespeare’s impassioned plea to treat refugees with compassion from The Book Of Sir Thomas More.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
Juliet Stevenson has welcomed Ukrainian refugees into her home (Together With Refugees/PA)

Stevenson told the PA news agency: “I am delighted by the way so many members of the British public have risen to the challenge, and are willing to offer sanctuary to people fleeing war and terrible circumstances.

“In contrast, the official Government response has been chaotic at best, deliberately heartless at worst.

“This literary gala is important as a fundraiser for charities working on the frontline but, more than that, as an acknowledgment that language has a power beyond bureaucracy and politics – as a call to attention and a shot to the heart – to remind us of the need for empathy and humanity.”

Comedian Meera Syal, actress Sophie Ward, singer-songwriter Jessie Ware and theatre turned film director Sir Nicholas Hytner have also been announced as part of the line-up, alongside this year’s Costa Book Prize winner Hannah Lowe.

Lowe told the PA news agency: “Like everyone watching what’s going on in Europe and feeling a real sense of helplessness, poetry is a tiny thing that we can do.

“Its great that people have been able to give their time so generously.

“I think there is something about when there is so much formal legislation, there is an acknowledgement that poetry speaks to a different part of us – to our emotions.”

Former Scottish Maker Jackie Kay, Imtiaz Dharker – who holds the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry – and American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who will appear from the US, will also perform.

The Comedy Women In Print Prize
Meera Syal will perform at Poets for Ukraine (Simon Annand/PA)

Kay told the PA news agency: “At times like these we have to turn to what we know how to do. A glint of hope.”

Ex-National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke and Forward prize winner Fiona Benson will also appear at the event, alongside former Poet Laureates Carol Ann Duffy and Andrew Motion.

The British actors and poets will read for up to five minutes to a live and virtual audience, with most reading translations of modern Ukrainian poems – including by Serhiy Zhadan who has been “under heavy bombardment”, curator of the event Aviva Dautch said.

Ukrainian poet Lyuba Yakimchuk, who arrived in Vienna on Wednesday with her son after escaping Kyiv, is hoping to join the event online, alongside Ilya Kaminsky, Nicole Yurcaba and Boris Dralyuk.

A message of support will come from the curator of Kyiv’s Book Festival, Oksana Shchur, who will also talk about her experience of fleeing the war.

Curator Dautch told the PA news agency: “Literature carries memory and gives poets a home in language, wherever they find themselves in the world.

“So we thought that, in this stand-still period when we’re waiting for the visa process to be sorted out so that we can bring Ukrainian refugees to the UK, at least we can bring their words and tell their stories.”

The fundraiser is the initiative of Poets for Ukraine, a collective of British poets who came together to offer support, raise funds and show solidarity with the people of Ukraine, led by Jacqueline Saphra.

The funds raised are being donated to Hope and Aid Direct as well as Goods for Good to help Ukrainian refugees.